Death Note is a really popular manga series (and anime series, and live action movie) about a boy named Light. When he finds a demon’s death book, Light sees an opportunity. He starts to use it to kill criminals in his own misguided attempt to make the world a better place. But then the police and Interpol start hunting him down and Light starts using the powers of the death notes to protect his own identity and stay out of jail. All the better to pursue his own increasingly insane agenda.
Needless to say, I was not sure how I felt about Light as a hero/protagonist. Dark heroes aside, protagonists are supposed to be not just people who are interesting but people that a reader wants to root for; otherwise what’s the point of following them through an entire book or series of books?
I call this phenomenon “The Artemis Fowl Problem.” More specifically, the problem refers to a protagonist who is unlikable and/or corrupted. The character is also often morally bankrupt.
Part of why I truly disliked Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer was because the narrator was at pains to remind readers, again and again, that Artemis had no redeeming qualities and was, in every sense, a villain. Artemis himself was also quick to point this out to anyone who would listen: he knew he had larceny in his soul and more besides. But why did I want to read about a character who was already such a horrible person when he was only twelve? Well, the answer is that I didn’t. (I realize this all might have changed over the arc of the series, but I just never cared enough to see if that was true.)
The Problem didn’t have a name or specific attributes until I encountered it again in The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonanthan Stroud. The main (human) character in that book is Nathaniel–another young man who is largely morally bankrupt not because, like Artemis, he is a criminal mastermind but because of the society that raises him and shapes him.
In the beginning of the book Nathaniel was not a villain or an anti-hero, he was a scared little boy. Circumstances then converged to make him into the calculating and ruthless youth he is for the rest of the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I liked this book much more perhaps because Nathaniel had once been a good person and perhaps because he had redeeming qualities. Having read the entire trilogy it also helps to know that, by the end, my faith in Nathaniel’s goodness was vindicated.
Interestingly, Nathaniel’s main foil in this series was Bartimaeus–a djinn who, along with other demons and magical creatures, helped magicians keep their powerful positions in London society. Bartimaeus isn’t really a nice character. He has his own agenda, he’s selfish, he’s technically closer to a monster than anything else.
But he’s charming and he’s also multi-faceted–Bartimaeus is ready to talk about all of the havoc he has wreaked. But he is also just as willing to talk about his soft spot for Ptolemy. Perhaps because Bartimaeus narrates in the first person, unlike the other characters mentioned here, it makes him more endearing as well as being easier to see his various dimensions.
Death Note once again reminded me of The Problem. In his own way Artemis was charming despite his criminal behaviors, someday I might even go back and read the rest of his books. Nathaniel was, at his core, a good person ruined by bad circumstances. Then we have Light; a character who thinks he is a pillar of virtue when, in fact, he is greedy, crazed, and truly morally bankrupt if for no other reason than the fact that he sees nothing wrong with what he is doing. And I don’t even mean killing the criminals. I mean wanting to kill cops and FBI agents just doing their jobs. Light also dreams of one day becoming a god-like ruler over a world shaped by murders he committed, so that helped cast him in a worse light too.
And so, once again, The Artemis Fowl Problem appears. In a way it makes these books more real because they operate in the grey areas found in real life. Still, the ambiguity is often confusing. Why do readers want to read about bad people (often doing bad things)? And what happens when the readers start cheering them on?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!